Frank Merriwell's Alarm: or, Doing His Best
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CHAPTER I. – ADRIFT IN THE DESERT
Once more the bicycle boys pushed on westward, and it must be said that in spite of all their perils they were in the best of spirits.
The beautiful valley in Utah was left behind, and some time later found them on the edge of the great American Desert.
Water was not to be had, and they began to suffer greatly from thirst.
The thirst at last became so great that nearly all were ready to drop from exhaustion.
Toots was much affected, and presently he let out a long wail of discouragement.
“Land of watermillions! mah froat am done parched so I ain’t gwan teh be able teh whisper if we don’ find some warter po’erful soon, chilluns! Nebber struck nuffin’ lek dis in all mah bawn days – no, sar!”
“You’re not the only one,” groaned Bruce. “What wouldn’t I give for one little swallow of water!”
“We must strike water soon, or we are done for,” put in Jack.
Toots began to sway in his saddle, and Frank spurted to his side, grasping him by the arm, as he sharply said:
“Brace up! You mustn’t give out now. The mountains are right ahead, and – ”
“Lawd save us!” hoarsely gasped the darky. “Dem dar mount’ns had been jes’ as nigh fo’ de las’ two houah, Marser Frank. We don’ git a bit nearer ’em – no, sar! Dem mount’ns am a recepshun an’ a delusum. We ain’t nebber gwan teh git out ob dis desert – nebber! Heah’s where we’s gwan teh lay ouah bones, Marser Frank!”
“You are to blame for this, Merriwell,” came reproachfully from Diamond. “You were the one to suggest that we should attempt to cross instead of going around to the north, and – ”
“Say, Diamond!” cried Harry; “riv us a guest – I mean give us a rest! You were as eager as any of us to try to cross the desert, for you thought we’d have it to boast about when we returned to Yale.”
“But we’ll never return.”
“Perhaps not; still I don’t like to hear you piling all the blame onto Merry.”
“He suggested it.”
“And you seconded the suggestion. We started out with a supply of water that we thought would last – ”
“We should have known better!”
“Perhaps so, but that is the fault of all of us, not any one person. You are getting to be a regular kicker of late.”
Jack shot Harry a savage look.
“Be careful!” he said. “I don’t feel like standing too much! I am rather ugly just now.”
“That’s right, and you have been the only one who has shown anything like ugliness at any time during the trip. You seem to want to put the blame of any mistake onto Merry, while it is all of us – ”
“Say, drop it!” commanded Frank, sharply. “This is no time to quarrel. Those mountain are close at hand, I am sure, and a last grim pull will take us to them. We will find water there, for you know we were told about the water holes in the Desert Range.”
“Those water holes will not be easy to find.”
“I have full directions for finding them.After we get a square drink, we’ll feel better, and there’ll be no inclination to quarrel.”
“Oh, water! water!” murmured Browning; “how I’d like to let about a quart gurgle down past my Adam’s apple!”
“Um, um!” muttered Rattleton, lifting one hand to his throat. “Why do you suppose a fellow’s larynx is called his Adam’s apple?”
“Nothing could be more appropriate,” declared Bruce, soberly, “for when Adam ate the apple he got it in the neck.”
Something like a cackling laugh came from Harry’s parched lips.
Diamond gave an exclamation of disgust.
“This is a nice time to joke!” he grated, fiercely.
“The matter with you,” said Rattleton, “is that you’ve not got over thinking of Lona Ayer, whom you were mashed on. You’ve been grouchy ever since you and Merry came back from your wild expedition into the forbidden Valley of Bethsada. It’s too bad, Jack – ”
“Shut up, will you! I’ve heard enough about that!”
“Drop it, Harry,” commanded Frank, warningly. “You’ve worn it out. Forget it.”
“Great Scott!” grunted Browning. “I believe my bicycle is heavier than the dealer represented it to be.”
“Think so?” asked Rattleton.
“Then give it a weigh.”
Browning’s wheel gave a sudden wobble that nearly threw him off.
“Don’t!” he gasped. “It’s not original. You swiped it from the very same paper that had my Adam’s apple joke in it.”
“Well, it was simply a case of retaliation.”
“I’d rather have a case of beer. Oh, say! – a case of beer! I wouldn’t do a thing to a case of beer – not a thing! Oh, just to think of sitting in the old room at Traeger’s or Morey’s and drinking all the beer or ale a fellow could pour down his neck! It makes me faint!”
“You should not permit yourself to think of such a thing as beer,” said Frank, jokingly. “You know beer will make you fat.”
“Don’t care; I’d drink it if it made me so fat I couldn’t walk. I’d train down, you know. Dumbbells, punchin’ bag, and so forth.”
“Speaking of the punching bag,” said Frank, “makes me think of a good thing on Reggy Stevens. You know Stevens. He’s near-sighted. Goes in for athletics, and takes great delight in the fancy manner in which he can hammer the bag. Well, he went down into the country to see his cousin last spring. Some time during the winter his cousin had found a big hornets’ nest in the woods, and had cut it down and taken it home. He hung it up in the garret. First day Stevens was there he wandered up into the garret and saw the hornets’ nest hanging in the dim light. ‘Ho!’ said Reggy. ‘Didn’t know cousin had a punching bag. Glad I found it. I’ll toy with it a little.’ Then he threw off his coat and made a rush at that innocent looking ball. With his first blow he drove his fist clean through the nest. ‘Holy smoke!’ gasped Reggy; ‘what have I struck?’ Then the hornets came pouring out, for the nest was not a deserted one. They saw Reggy – and went him several better. Say, fellows, they didn’t do a thing to poor Reggy! About five hundred made for him, and it seemed to Reggy that at least four hundred and ninety-nine of them got him. His howls started shingles off the roof of that old house and knocked several bricks out of the chimney. He fell down the stairs, and went plunging through the house, with a string of hornets trailing after him, like a comet’s tail. The hornets did not confine themselves strictly to Reggy; some of them sifted off and got in their work on Reggy’s cousin, aunt, uncle, the kitchen girl, the hired man, and one of them made for the dog. The dog thought that hornet was a fly, and snapped at it. One second later that dog joined in the general riot, and the way he swore and yelled fire in dog language was something frightful to hear. Reggy didn’t stop till he got outside and plunged his head into the old-fashioned watering trough, where he held it under the surface till he was nearly drowned. The whole family was a sight. And Reggy – well, he’s had the swelled head ever since.”
Rattleton laughed and Bruce managed to smile, while Toots gave a cracked “Yah, yah!” but Diamond failed to show that he appreciated the story in the least.
However, it soon became evident that the spirits of the lads had been lightened somewhat, and they pedaled onward straight for the grim mountains which had seemed so near for the last two hours.
The sun poured its stifling heat down on the great desert, where nothing save an occasional clump of sage brush could be seen.
Heat shimmered in the air, and it was not strange that the young cyclists were disheartened and ready to give up in despair.
Suddenly a cry came from Diamond.
“Look!” he shouted. “Look to the south! Why haven’t we seen it before? We’re blind. Water, water!”
They looked, and, at a distance of less than a mile it seemed they could see a beautiful lake of water, with trees on the distant shore. The reflection of the trees showed in the mirror-like surface of the blue lake.
“Come on!” hoarsely cried Jack, as he turned his wheel southward. “I’ll be into that water up to my neck in less than ten minutes!”
“Stop!” shouted Merriwell.
Jack did not seem to hear. If he heard, he did not heed the command. He was bending far over the handlebars and using all his energy to send his wheel spinning toward the beautiful lake.
“I must stop him!” cried Frank. “It is a race for life!”
Frank forgot that a short time before Jack Diamond had accused him of leading them all to their doom by inducing them to attempt to cross the barren waste – he forgot everything save that his comrade was in danger.
No, he did not forget everything. He knew what that race meant. It might exhaust them both and render them unable to ride their wheels over the few remaining miles of barren desert between them and the mountain range. When Diamond learned the dreadful, heart-sickening truth about that beautiful lake of water it might rob his heart of courage and hope so that he would drop in despair and give himself up to death in the desert.
Frank would save him – he must save him! He felt a personal responsibility for the lives of every one of the party, and he had resolved that all should return to New Haven in safety.
“Stop, Jack!” he shouted again.
But the sight of that beautiful lake had made Diamond mad with a longing to plunge into the water, to splash in it, to drink his fill till not another swallow could he force down his throat.
Madly he sent his wheel flying over the sandy plain, panting, gasping, furious to reach the lake.
How beautiful the water looked! How cool and inviting was the shade of the trees on the other shore! Oh, he would go around there and rest beneath those trees.
Frank bent forward over the handlebars, muttering:
“Ride now as you never rode before!”
The wheel seemed to leap away like a thing of life – it flew as if it possessed wings.
But Frank did not gain as swiftly as he desired, for Diamond, also, was using all his energy to send his bicycle along.
“Faster! faster!” panted Frank.
Faster and faster he flew along. The hot breath of the desert beat on his face as if it came rushing from the mouth of a furnace. It seemed to scorch him. Fine particles of sand whipped up and stung his flesh.
He heard a strange laugh – a wild laugh.
“Heaven pity him!” thought Frank, knowing that laugh came from Jack’s lips. “The sight of that ghostly lake has nearly turned his brain with joy. I fear he will go mad, indeed, when he knows the truth.”
On sped pursued and pursuer, and the latter was still gaining. Frank Merriwell had engaged in many contests of skill and endurance, but never in one where more was at stake. His success in overtaking his friend meant the saving of a human life – perhaps two lives.
Now he was gaining swiftly, and something like a prayer of thankfulness came from his lips.
Once more he cried out to the lad in advance, but it seemed that Diamond’s ears were dumb, for he made no sound that told he heard.
One last spurt – Frank felt that it must bring him to Diamond’s side. He gathered himself, his feet clinging to the flying pedals as if fastened there.
A slip, a fall, a miscalculation might mean utter failure, and failure might mean death for Diamond.
Now Frank was close behind his friend. He could hear the whirring sound of the spokes of Diamond’s wheel cutting the air, and he could hear the hoarse, panting breathing of his friend.
A steady hand guided Merriwell’s wheel alongside that of his friend; a steady and a strong hand fell on the shoulder of the lad who had been crazed by the alluring vision of the lake in the desert.
Diamond turned toward his friend a face from which a pair of glaring eyes looked out. His lips curled back from his white teeth, and he snarled:
“Hands off! Don’t try to hold me back! Can’t you see it, you fool! The lake – the lake!”
“There is no lake!”
“Yes, there is! You are blind! See it!”
“Stop, Jack! I tell you there is no lake!”
Frank tried to check his friend, but Diamond made a swinging blow at him, which Merriwell managed to stop.
“Wait – listen a moment!” entreated Frank.
But the belief that a lake of water lay a short distance away had completely driven anything like reason from Diamond’s head.
“Hands off!” he shouted. “If you try to stop me you’ll be sorry!”
Frank saw he must resort to desperate measures. He secured a firm grip on the shoulder of the young Virginian, and, a moment later, gave a surge that caused them both to fall from their wheels.
Over and over they rolled, and then lay in a limp heap on the desert, where the earth was hot and baked and the sun beat down with a fierce parching heat.
Diamond was the first to stir, and he tried to scramble up, his one thought being to mount his wheel again and ride onward toward the shimmering lure.
Frank seemed to realize this, for he caught at his friend, grasped him and held him fast.
Then there was a furious struggle there on the desert, Diamond making a mad effort to break away, but being held by Frank, who would not let him go.
The eyes of both lads glared and their teeth were set. Frank tried to force Diamond down and hold him, but Jack had the strength of an insane person, and, time after time, he flung his would-be benefactor off.
The eyes of the young Virginian were red and bloodshot, while his lips were cracked and bleeding. His cap was gone, and his straight dark hair fell in a tousled mass over his forehead.
Occasionally muttered words came from Diamond’s lips, but the other was silent, seeming to realize that he must conquer the mad fellow by sheer strength alone.
So they fought on, their efforts growing weaker and weaker, gasping for breath. Seeing that fierce struggle, no one could have imagined they were anything but the most deadly enemies, battling for their very lives.
At last, after some minutes, Diamond’s fictitious strength suddenly gave out, and then Frank handled and held him with ease. Merriwell pinned Jack down and held him there, while both remained motionless, gasping for breath and seeking to recover from their frightful exertions.
“You fool!” whispered the Virginian, bitterly. “What are you trying to do?”
“Trying to save your life, but you have given me a merry hustle for it,” answered Frank.
“Save my life! Bah! Why have you stopped me when we were so near the lake.”
“There is no lake.”
“Are you blind? All of us could see the lake! It is near – very near!”
“I tell you, Jack, there is no lake.”
“You have been crazed by what you fancied was water. Some time you will ask my pardon for your words.”
“You will ask my pardon for stopping me in this manner, Frank Merriwell! You did it because I was the first to discover the lake! You were jealous! You did not wish me to reach it first! I know you! You want to be the leader in everything.”
“If you were not half crazy now, you would not utter such words, Jack.”
“Oh, I know you – I know!”
Then Diamond’s tone and manner suddenly changed and he began to beg:
“Please let me up, Merry – please do! Oh, merciful heaven! I am perishing for a swallow of water! And it is so near! There is water enough for ten thousand men! And such beautiful trees, where the shadows are so cool – where this accursed sun can’t pour down on one’s head! Please let me up, Frank! I’ll do anything for you if you’ll only let me go to that lake!”
“Jack, dear old fellow, I am telling you the truth when I say there is no lake. There could be no lake here in this burning desert. It is an impossibility. If there were such a lake, the ones I asked about the water-holes would have told me.”
“They did not know. I have seen it, and I know it is there.”
Frank allowed his friend to sit up.
“Look, Jack,” he said; “where is your lake?”
Jack looked away to the south, the east, the north, and then toward the west, where lay the mountains.
There was no lake in sight.
CHAPTER II. – ON TO THE MOUNTAINS
“Where – where has it gone?” slowly and painfully asked Diamond. “I am sure I saw it – sure! The lake, the trees, all gone!”
“I told you there was no lake.”
“Then – then it must have been a mirage!”
“That is exactly what it was.”
With a deep groan of despair Diamond fell back limply on the sand, as if the last bit of strength and hope had gone from him.
“This ends it!” he gasped. “What’s the use of struggling any more! We may as well give up right here and die!”
“Not much!” cried Merriwell, with attempted cheerfulness. “That is why I ran you down and dragged you from your wheel.”
“What do you mean?”
“I knew the mirage might lure you on and on into the desert, seeming to flee before you, till at last it would vanish in a mocking manner, and you, utterly exhausted and spirit-broken, would lie down and die without another effort.”
Jack was silent a few moments.
“And you did all this for me?” he finally asked. “You pursued and pulled me from my wheel to – to save me?”
Another brief silence.
“I was mad.”
“You looked it.”
“My thirst – the sight of what I took to be water – the shadows of the trees! Ah, yes, I was mad, Frank!”
“Well, it’s all over now.”
“Yes, it is all over. The jig’s up!”
“Nonsense! Get a brace on, old man. We must get to the mountains. It is our only chance, Jack.”
“The mountains! I shall never reach the mountains, Frank. I am done for – played out!”
“That’s all rot, old fellow! You are no more played out than I am. We are both pretty well used up, but we’ll pull through to the mountains and get a drink of water.”
“You never give up.”
“Well, I try never to give up.”
“Frank, I want you to forgive me for what I said before we saw the mirage. You know I was making a kick.”
“Oh, never mind that! It’s all right, Jack.”
“I want you to say you forgive me.”
“That’s dead easy. Of course I forgive you. Think I’m a stiff to hold a grudge over a little matter like that?”
Diamond looked his admiration from his bloodshot eyes.
“You’re all right, Merry,” he hoarsely declared. “You always were all right. I knew it all along. Sometimes I get nasty, for I have a jealous nature, although I try to hold it in check. I never did try to hold myself in check in any way till I knew you and saw how you controlled your tastes and passions. That was a revelation to me, Merry. You know I hated you at first, but I came to admire you, despite myself. I have admired you ever since. Sometimes the worst side of my nature will crop out, but I always know I am wrong. Forgive me for striking you.”
“There, there, old chap! Why are you thinking of such silly things? You are talking as if you had done me a deadly wrong, and this was your last chance to square yourself.”
“It is my last chance – I am sure of that. I am played out, and I can’t drive that wheel farther. It’s no use – I throw up the sponge right here.”
A look of determination came to Frank’s face.
“You shall not do anything of the kind!” he cried. “I won’t have it, Jack!”
Diamond did not reply, but lay limp on the ground. Frank put a firm hand on his shoulder, saying:
“Come, Jack, make a bluff at it.”
“I tell you it is! Come on. We can reach the mountains within an hour.”
“The mountains!” came huskily from Diamond’s lips. “God knows if there are any mountains! They, too, may be a mirage!”
“Think – think how long we have been riding toward them and still they seemed to remain as far away as they were hours ago.”
“That is one of the peculiar effects of the air out here.”
“I do not believe any of us will reach the mountains. And if we should, we might not find water. Those mountains look baked and barren.”
“Remember, I was told how to find water there.”
But this did not give the disheartened boy courage.
“I know you were told, but the man who told you said that at times that water failed. It’s no use, Frank, the game is not worth the candle.”
Then it was that Merriwell began to grow angry.
“I am ashamed of you, Diamond!” he harshly cried. “I did think you were built of better stuff! Where is your backbone! Come, man, you must make another try!”
“Must?” came rather defiantly from Jack. “I’ll not be forced to do it!”
“Yes, you will!”
The Virginian looked at Frank in astonishment.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I mean that you will brace up and attempt to reach the mountains with the rest of us, or I’ll give you the blamedest licking you ever had – and there won’t be any apologies afterward, either!”
That aroused Jack somewhat.
“You – you wouldn’t do that – now?” he faltered.
“Wouldn’t I?” cried Frank, seeming to make preparations to carry out his threat. “Well, you’ll see!”
“But – but – ”
“There are no buts about it! Either you get up and make one more struggle, or I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you are not in condition to make a struggle when I leave you. This is business, and it’s straight from the shoulder!”
Diamond remonstrated weakly, but Frank seemed in sober earnest.
“I believe it would do you good,” he declared. “It would beat a little sense into you. It’s what you want, anyway.”
A sense of shame came over Jack.
“If you’ve got enough energy to give me a licking, I ought to have enough to make another try for life,” he huskily said.
“Of course you have.”
“Well, I’ll do it. It isn’t because I fear the licking, for that wouldn’t make any difference now, but I can make another try for it, if you can.”
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